DTF Printer (Direct to Film) - A Revolutionary Method to Customize T-Shirts and Beyond

Why DTF Printing?

A DTF Printer is the silver-bullet of all printing methods, especially for the t-shirt and apparel industry. Having over 20 years of experience in the t-shirt and apparel printing industry, I can say with certainty that this rather simple method renders customization problems a thing of the past.  It is the key to unlocking virtually unlimited customization capabilities on any garment blend, material, color, and stretch level.  DTF Printers can now handle a truly full-color range, high detail, bright whites (without dye-migration, regardless of the material you're transferring onto), any size design, with high wash fastness and durability.

If you are just learning about this, don't worry, you aren't too far behind.  It was only recently that this printing method has been fully realized as viable due to the work that China has invested into it over the past 4-5 years.   The component parts/process/equipment which they have developed has allowed it to become viable as a scalable and stable customization method.  Also, the once brittle supply chain in the USA for DTF printers and supplies has strengthened significantly where you will not run out of supplies when you need them.  The ingenuity is truly amazing and we are blown away everyday by the capabilities of DTF printing.


How does a DTF Printer and Process work?

DTF (Direct to film) t-shirt printing is a printing process in which an image or design is printed directly onto a film substrate, which is then applied to a t-shirt using heat, time, and pressure. This process is also known as heat transfer pressing, creating a fully customized garment in seconds.

In DTF printing, the image or design is first mastered in the design software of your choice, Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Corel....etc.  It does not need to be vector in order to print at a high quality, a high resolution is fine and you can also test to see what file types and resolutions you can get away with. f

The design is then printed on a special DTF film material using specially formulated DTF inks, film, and TPU powder.  After printing the design inversely onto the film, it is rolled through a pit of TPU powder, with excess shaken off the area outside of the design, and cured in an oven with quartz bulbs for approximately 2-3 minutes from start to finish.  The film is now lightly bonded to the film and the ink which was once wet with a sandy powder finish on it prior to entering the drying chamber, is now bonded to the cured TPU powder.  It is all one durable sheet which is then cut off the primary roll and is now ready for pressing.  

A heat press can then used to apply heat and pressure to the film on top of a t-shirt, other garment, or other substrate (ie. an Iphone case, cardboard, metal...etc), which causes the design to transfer from the film onto the t-shirt.  The film is then removed cleanly and all that remains is your beautiful design on your t-shirt.  Press it one more time for 10-15 seconds with a piece of parchment paper between the design and the press/iron and it will transform from shiny to matte, and from hard to soft.  It will now last many washes before there is any degradation.

DTF printing offers several benefits over other printing methods. It allows for the production of high-quality prints with excellent resolution and color accuracy. It is also a fast and efficient process that can be used to produce single pieces or large volumes of transfers quickly. Additionally, the ink and TPU powder used in this process is typically thin and stretchy, which makes it more comfortable to wear than typical screen printing or screen printed transfers.


The DTF Printer Essentials List - Everything You'll Need to Get Started:

  1. DTF Printer - Your printer needs to support CMYK and White.  Every design should get the same treatment, meaning no reduction or removal of the white underbase on any area of the design... even underneath black ink.  For companies recommending 6 ink color support, this is only necessary if you are printing with an adhesive in the 6th print head, removing the need for TPU powder.  However, this is currently a very uncommon method of DTF printing and not recommended for beginners.  
  2. RIP Software - Flexi or Cadlink RIP software has become the standard for DTF printers.  The RIP software is necessary in order to prepare your designs for printing with your desired layout, settings, ICC profile, ink laydown
  3. A Print Driver - This will come with your specific printer for additional settings beyond the RIP.  Every printer will have recommended settings for optimal print output and printer performance. 
  4. DTF Film - You will need DTF sheets or DTF rolls depending on your printer.  There are two key chemicals applied to the film.  It is sprayed on in two layers.  The layer furthest from the film is a chemical to prevent the DTF ink from running while printing.  The layer closest to the film is a release chemical so that after eventually pressing a design onto your garment, it cleanly releases, so as to not ruin your design or garment upon removing the film.  A high quality film has this chemistry down to a science so that you can transfer and pull films with high confidence everytime.
  5. DTF Inks - These are specially formulated waterbased, high viscosity, high washability inks.  Being that the originally intended purpose of DTF was for t-shirts and other apparel, it's expected to be put through washes, so the inks were formulated with this in mind both in the US and in China.  After testing dozens of companies, we have found incredible inks with bright whites, durability, stretchability, and reduced print head clogging.  
  6. DTF TPU Powder - This is the ingredient that bonds everything together.  The quality of your powder will affect the way it looks and feels more than it will affect the washability of your product.  Kodak is the premium TPU powder for DTF printing currently because their product is consistent, has a thinner, softer hand feel for the design on the garment, and doesn't create or trap an abundance of oil within your design.  
  7. Heatpress (Recommended) -  A heatpress makes this process super easy because they're such simple machines.  We recommend setting your heatpress at 320 degress for 13-15 seconds at medium pressure. Once the film cools for 15-30 seconds, you can then confidently pull your film off the shirt, leaving only the design on the garment.  The magic happens when/if you want to press it a second time for another 13-15 seconds with a piece of parchment paper or thin layer of t-shirt between the design and the heatpress/iron because it removes the shine of the design and makes it softer.  If you do not have a heatpress, you can perform the same process with an iron or a cricut believe it or not.  Remember, it's just heat, time, and pressure... an iron or cricut can perform siimilarly with a little pressure from above.
  8. T-Shirts or Products to Press - Now you're ready to press on any garment.  We are not exaggerating when we say any garment either.  Try it on nylon, polyester, spandex, denim, bags, cotton....etc.  We are not calling it the silver bullet of printing for no reason.  DTF printers will be a dominant force in the next few years.


How much is a DTF Printer?

DTF printers come in all shapes and sizes at the moment, so the prices can range from $1,500 to $50,000 per unit.   

Larger Format DTF Specific Printers - Roll Fed Machines - Medium to High Cost

For example, more industrial and DTF specific printers will have more heavy-duty components, printing flexibility, faster printing speeds, and real support and can run about $20,000 per complete system at DTF Superstore (Chinese System) for a 2 head machine with a shaker/dryer unit that prints 24 inch wide rolls. 

There is a single head Mutoh (Japanese) machine from STS Inks which would run about $20,000 with the shaker and dryer.

Then there is a 2 head Mutoh (Japanese) machine from STS Inks which could run $45,000 because it's a higher quality japanese brand machine with very good support. 

There is also a DTF Printer made by a company called CobraFlex (US Designed System) which offers a no-powder solution for about $20,000.  The way they do this is by putting the adhesive in one of the print channels or heads, but again, you run the risk of more head clogs with this method.  It's just a matter of what works for you and how often you will run the machine.  For many people across the country, this is working great.

The more heads on your printer, the faster it prints.  There is a downside to having more heads though because it requires more alignments and upkeep with the risk of having more downtime.  It's kind of like DTG in that way where the printer is happiest when it is well kept and printing for as much of each day as possible.  When you are not printing, as long as you wet cap your head with water or the correct solvent, it will likely be fine after a few cleanings upon restarting.

Smaller Format DTF Specific Printers - Sheet Fed Machines - Lower Cost

You can go with a converted epson from a small company that specializes in this on an A3 size printer (11 inches x 17 inches) and it will run you about $1,900 all-in with starter supplies, shipping, and rip software.  At the moment, we don't have a recommendation for a printer of this size because we do not know the reliability of any small units. 

Also, with these units, keep in mind that there is no shaker/dryer that the sheet will feed into.  This means that you will have a tray filled with powder which you will shake powder onto the wet ink after printing it.  You will shake it off by hand and then you can then cure/bond it to your design in two different ways.

  1. Hover a Heatpress over it with the powdered side up for a certain amount of time
  2. Purchase a Curing Cabinet from STS Inks for a preset amount of time


DTF Printing vs. DTG Printing vs. Laser Toner Printing

At the end of the day, we just want a bright, light weight (normally), potentially full-color design without the requirement of printing hundreds like screen printing requires.  That's where these 3 methods come into play, but how do you know which of these is right for you? 

It's kind of hard to tell the difference, especially without having deep first hand knowledge of them, so we've created a grid below and explanation below to help. 

Time, Investment, and Cost Matrix

 DTF (Direct to Film) DTG (Direct to Garment) Laser Toner
Startup Cost  Ranges $1500 to $50,000 Ranges $5,000 to $600,000   $4,000 to $15,000
Cost Per Print including all consumables $.50 (small) to $2.00 (large) per print $.50 (small) to $5.50 due to high white ink cost (large) per print $.30 (small) to $2.00 (large) per print
Experience needed for consistent output A month to 2 months 2 weeks to a month Some design modification training and prints consistently
Actual Time Per Print 30 seconds (small) to 3 minutes (large)
30 seconds (small) to 5 minutes (large)
15-20 seconds per sheet
Pressing / Drying Per Garment After printing, transfer takes about 45 seconds to 1 minute per garment
4 Minutes to 8 Minutes per shirt
After printing, transfer takes about 45 seconds per garment
Pretreatment Cost No Pretreatment $.25 per piece
No Pretreatment
Film Cost $119 to $200 for a 24" inch wide x 100 meter roll No Film $1.00 per sheet to $1.50 per sheet


DTF Printing (Direct to Film) vs. DTG Printing (Direct to Garment) 

When comparing these two, we think about our experience in both.  We've printed hundreds of thousands of shirts using Epsons (early years) and Kornits (presently) and it was a necessary evil that was a huge time improvement for small run / full color designs... and it's really a method that is solely meant for cotton t-shirts. Obviously, it can print on more than that, but the output is never great. We can go on regarding what DTG machine works best with what material, but it's not practical to have more than one type of DTG unit in your printing ecosystem because at the end of the day, we're simply looking to print beautiful garments for our customers, not tinker with various printers and settings all day. 

And this is where DTF printing/transfers simply dominate DTG printers.  Printing onto film is what we refer to as a stable media.  The properties of the film are generally the same regardless of design color, size, complexity....etc.  We simply RIP and print and the expected result occurs.  From there, we transfer onto any color garment, material, stretchiness with any level of design detail or color without having to stop and think about any of those things. Whereas with a DTG printer, we turn into t-shirt scientists when we hear that the order is for red shirts with a full color design.  Is it a 50/50 blend?  Is it Jerzees or Gildan?  Is it a multi-color or single color design?  How many pieces is it?  And then let's say you try printing it on a DTG machine, it could look beautiful after printing and extremely dull after drying because that's how DTG printing works.  Now imagine you never had to worry about that again.  DTF is legitimately the silver bullet for the industry.  

DTF has a single weakness and we do mean just one.  Unlike how DTG can print a design that fades cleanly into the garment color itself so smoothly that your eye can't see specifically where the fade ends, DTF cannot do this.  DTF requires discernible edges, which means it can't cleanly fade into the shirt color itself.  For example, imagine a design of a face that uses the shirt color to create shadows and features.  Think about how easily DTG does this.  DTF can accomplish this in two different ways, but not like DTG can. 

1. The fades and colors need to be contained within a printed area

2. The fades need to be transformed into PREDEFINED shaped and sized halftone dots, where it is an actual part of the artwork, not generated upon ripping.  So it would look this way upon proofing.